Peter Howell, Martial. Ancients in Action. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. 126. ISBN 978-1-85399- 702-0. UK£11.99.
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa
This slender book is another addition to the growing ‘Ancients in Action’ series produced by Bristol Classical Press.[] The author, Peter Howell, a recognised scholar on Martial,[] states in his preface that this short book aims to give an account of this Latin poet and his work from an early twenty- first century perspective (p. 7). Scholarship on Martial in the twenty-first century is advancing at a rapid rate. Numerous monographs, translations and commentaries have been produced.[] The modern scholar has no shortage of choice when seeking out serious work done on Martial. In terms of introductions on the poet, however, the twenty-first century reader is not so well catered for. William Fitzgerald’s Martial: The World of Epigram (Chicago 2007) is perhaps the only other suitable choice in English. Howell’s introduction, however, is briefer and more simple than Fitzgerald’s, and so is a timely companion to the more serious books being produced on this poet. Seven chapters follow Howell’s preface, each aimed at various aspects of Martial’s life, poetry, cultural context, influences and legacy, as well as a helpful section for suggested further reading and an index.
The first chapter, ‘The Life of Martial’ (pp. 9-33), provides a brief overview of Martial’s life, from his birth in the Spanish town, Bilbilis, to his move to Rome, and finally his return back to provincial life and his death. This chapter also introduces the reader to themes explored in Martial’s poetry and highlights influences earlier and contemporary poets, like Catullus, Vergil and Juvenal, had on him.
Chapter 2, ‘What is an Epigram?’ (pp. 35- 48), focuses the discussion of Martial’s poetry onto his chosen genre -- the epigram. Howell defines the parameters of the genre, tracing it from the oldest known examples found on pots from the late eighth century BC (p. 35), right up to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition in 1802 (quoted on p. 35):
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole; Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
The third chapter, ‘Martial and the Epigram’ (pp. 49- 61), illustrates how Martial adheres to the rules of the genre, but also accounts for many of his poems that do not follow strict generic classification. Howell believes, though, that the epigram was well suited to Martial’s personality. He states, ‘Nothing could be clearer from his work than his dislike of all that was pretentious and hypocritical, and this humble genre allowed him to be true to himself’ (p. 49). This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book for a reader to acquaint him- or herself, with Martial’s style, language (occasionally obscene and ‘deliberately outrageous’, p. 52), content, use of metre, subject matter and readership. Howell also cautions against reading Martial’s poetry only in a selection, fearing that the reader will be unable to appreciate his skill in arranging his books and the often clever tricks produced by this arrangement (p. 54). The fourth chapter, ‘Martial and Domitian’ (pp. 63- 71), highlights the poet's relationship with the emperor, and makes the comment that, coupled with his obscenity, it was his flattery of Domitian that contributed most to his decline in admiration as a poet in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (p. 63). Instead of offering a counter argument to this claim, Howell accepts it, and demonstrates that this was and is a common stance of a poet, or writer, under an autocrat in any period.
Chapter 5, ‘Martial and Roman Social Life’ (pp. 73- 91), highlights for the first- time reader, the poet’s great ability to 'throw a brilliant light on Roman social life' (p. 73). Martial artfully satirizes almost anything and everything in everyday life at Rome, from old women, doctors and auctioneers to the Romans’ bathing and dining habits. Howell wisely does caution the first-time reader not to take everything Martial says at face value, and highlights the importance that context and literary tradition play in Marital’s poems (pp. 73ff).
The sixth chapter, ‘Martial and Patronage’ (pp. 93- 100), briefly introduces the unique relationship in ancient Rome, between a patronus and his cliens, and the value it played in Martial’s own literary career.
The seventh and final chapter, ‘Martial and Posterity’ (pp. 101-18), provides a simple overview of Martial’s reception history. It lists the various poets and writers who would become Martial’s successors, in terms of genre and content, such as Ausonius, Luxorius, Erasmus, Thomas More, Ben Johnson, A. E.Housman and others, as well providing helpful information on some editions and translations of Martial’s work.
Throughout the book, when referring to specific poems, or lines of poems, Howell quotes the Latin text and provides and English translation. This may seem like a superfluous flourish to the latinless reader, but it serves as a reminder that one is in fact learning about an ancient Latin poet, and is also a welcome addition to those with some Latin reading ability. Howell’s introduction, while making no new and startling insights on the poet or his poetry, does leave the reader feeling that he or she is in the very capable hands of a seasoned scholar, well-familiar with Martial and his times. On the back cover of the book, the publishers state that the ‘Ancients in Action’ series, 'introduces major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader, including the essentials of each subject’s life, works, and significance for later western civilisation.' Peter Howell has fulfilled all these aims and has provided the ‘modern general reader’ (in English) a worthy introduction to this Latin poet.
[] Other volumes in the series already produced, and forthcoming, on ancient figures include: Catullus, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Horace, Lucretius, Ovid, Pindar, Sappho, Spartacus and Tacitus.
[] See for example, Peter Howell, A Commentary on Book 1 of the Epigrams of Martial (London 1980) and Martial: The Epigrams, Book V (Warminster 1995).
[] See Kathleen Coleman’s recent commentary on the Liber Spectaculorum (Oxford 2006) for an up- to- date bibliography of recent commentaries, monographs, and translations.